Trees, Views, and the 'Other 9/11' 

Warring hillside neighbors have El Cerrito up in arms. You know, one of those "Not in Your Backyard" things.

Here's the thing: People in shady hillside El Cerrito really like their trees.

And here's the other thing: People in shady hillside El Cerrito really like their panoramas. So what happens when a downhill neighbor's stately Monterey pine grows smack in front of an uphill neighbor's view of the Golden Gate? More to the point, what happens when a lot of neighbors' trees start blocking a lot of other people's views? You get what some homeowners have been calling "the other September 11."

But before we get to September 11, 2003, when the city's attempt to negotiate some sort of peace reportedly turned into an unseemly shouting match, let's back up. El Cerrito already has a tree ordinance, which was adopted in the '70s and gave the city authority to order the trimming or complete removal of problem trees. It also has a five-member tree commission to help settle neighborly disputes. But the arbitration process hadn't been going particularly smoothly, partly because of the sheer vitriol of the tree-versus-view factions.

Some disputes went far beyond the backyard fence, and in some cases beyond the hiring of lawyers. Some had been festering for years, and pitted multiple residents of one uphill block against multiple residents of the block below. There are stories in El Cerrito about uphill residents who routinely crank-call their downhill neighbors to pressure them into chopping something down, and of downhill residents who deliberately plant even more trees in their yards just to spite their uphill enemies. The problems had become so pervasive and internecine that a member of the tree commission even got wrapped up in a tree-versus-view dispute with his own neighbor.

Finally, two years ago, the commission got involved in a case so sticky it essentially paralyzed the whole city process, leaving a handful of pending disputes rotting in line. "Lawyers got involved, the commission and the city got scared, and everything froze," recalls tree commissioner Paul Gilbert-Snyder. The commission remained on hiatus until last month, when the fateful 9/11 meeting took place. "They had not met for two years," says City Councilwoman Sandi Potter, the liaison to the tree commission. "They hadn't had a meeting or heard a case. A lot of things were pending or not working well. It was considered to be a dysfunctional process."

So dysfunctional, in fact, that in May the city decided to opt out. "It was the commission's feeling that they weren't trained in law," Potter says. "They didn't feel that they were equipped to address these conflicts." The council temporarily suspended the city's role as an arbitrator and asked the city attorney to see about drafting a new ordinance. When El Cerrito held a town hall meeting a few weeks ago to discuss what should go into a replacement ordinance, the meeting boiled over: More than one hundred people showed up -- the vast majority from the "Not in Your Backyard" side -- and the forum had to be relocated to accommodate the crowd.

Members of advocacy group Friends of El Cerrito Trees, which was slated to give a PowerPoint presentation, felt everything they said was either shouted down or ignored. "It was like this bizarre consensus-building project amongst people who were just screaming," says Ann Thrupp, the group's coordinator. Each side emerged from the meeting believing they'd advocated a fair balance between trees and views, while the opponents had acted solely in their own interests.

Balance on this issue, it seems, may be tricky to achieve. El Cerrito's existing law, formally named the "Obstruction of Views by Trees on Private Property" ordinance, has been roundly blasted as biased in favor of view-seekers, from the title on down. Yet no one, including the tree commission, seems to have kept a record of how many times, if ever, the city has actually axed someone's tree. Most often, the commission seems to have recommended a trim.

But clearing someone's bay view isn't as simple as getting rid of the offending tree's upper branches. "Part of the problem is that people don't understand proper pruning," Gilbert-Snyder says. "You can't just cut the top off a tree, [which is] what many people who are wishing to restore their view want to do. Tree-topping is very damaging to trees. It's illegal in many cities, including San Francisco."

Instead, tree advocates recommend alternatives such as thinning out the branches, which leaves the uphill neighbor with a "framed" or "filtered" view. This partial solution, of course, doesn't sit well with homeowners who've watched branches slowly creep across their living-room windows.

"I can show you people who bought their homes when the view was panoramic and now they look like they're in caves and the one window of light that's coming through is about to be blocked by another tree," says homeowner Glenn Davis, who with his frequent posts to the ElCerritoWire.com Web site has become something of an unofficial spokesman for the view proponents, who have not organized into a group. "I can show you houses surrounded by eucalyptus, which some people consider beautiful trees but the fire department considers the biggest weed around."

Nearly everyone agrees there are some problematic species that just shouldn't be planted anymore, like the blue gum eucalyptus, which can grow up to two hundred feet. But El Cerrito's tree-huggers complain that their view-hugging opponents, in their zeal to downsize everyone else's greenery, often can't see the forest for the, well, you know. "Trees have many more benefits than aesthetics," says Thrupp, who holds a doctorate in environmental management. "They provide oxygen, they actually help to clean the air, they buffer against noise, they provide shade and cooling." They also provide soil stability, something that should be of interest to anyone who lives on a hillside.

Naturally, though, folks with obstructed views argue that they aren't against all trees, just those ones over there. The debate, Davis says, is not about the environment, but simply about neighborly manners. In a city as sloped as El Cerrito, they point out, most uphill neighbors are someone else's downhill neighbors, and may one day be called upon to remove their own trees. But some live far higher on the hill than others, and many of the combatants view this as a hills-versus-flats issue -- East Bay code for "rich versus not-quite-so-rich."

At its root, this dispute is all about money. "We pay more money for the house because of views," says former El Cerrito Councilwoman Jane Bartke, who prefers the ordinance as is. "Does a neighbor have a right to, in a sense, steal that money value away from you?"

That isn't a rhetorical question. Just ask Laurie Capitelli of Red Oak Realty, which handles properties in El Cerrito: "A little smidgen of a view, kind of filtered: That might be worth $10,000," the broker says. "A killer panoramic view -- and I'm talking about a four-bridge view -- that can be $100,000." But, he adds, each mature tree adds value to a property, too. "A nice redwood tree or spruce or fir or cedar might be worth $10,000 to $15,000," he says.

While money can certainly buy you a house, it's less clear whether it can buy the right to govern what happens in the airspace outside your window. "If you look at the title to their property, there's nothing that says they have a bay view," Thrupp says. "There's nothing in law, and yet they feel they have an entitlement to it."

As Parks and Recreation Commission chair Rosemary Loubal sees it, cities evolve over time: New construction makes neighborhoods denser; saplings become trees. "I don't think we can guarantee a neighbor that he or she can always have the exact same view from every window of their house that they had when they bought the house," she says. "The area has changed in the last fifty years, and views have changed."

Yet whether or not homeowners own the view they paid for, they tend to feel pretty bitter when it's taken away. Many say the bay view was their real estate agent's top selling point. "I walked into the house and that's the first thing I was shown," Davis remembers. "It's one of the reasons I bought it." And Capitelli says residents with blocked views will inevitably lose resale value. "I don't care how beautiful the trees are; they will suffer economically," he says. El Cerrito itself uses the bayscape as a selling point, touting itself as "the city of views."

The city used to be pretty proud of its trees, too. During the '80s, city leaders worked with schools and Scout troops to get kids to plant seedlings in the hot, dry community. But some residents apparently liked the kitten a whole lot more than they now like the cat. "There are a lot of people in El Cerrito who go around beating their breasts saying 'I'm sorry I planted a Monterey pine back when I was a kid in my Scout troop,'" Loubal says wryly.

So what should the city do -- simply tweak its old ordinance and pray folks start acting more neighborly, or draft a new one that gets it out of the arbitration business altogether? Residents have as many answers as there are leaves in the forest. Friends of El Cerrito Trees, for example, wants the city to model its ordinance after one used in Tiburon, which removes the city as a middleman in disputes. View proponents are pushing for a law like that of Rancho Palos Verdes, which strictly forbids the planting of trees that will reach more than fifteen feet in height. And some other folks would like El Cerrito to scrap its law entirely and create an Urban Forest Plan as Berkeley, Richmond, and Albany have done, which provides detailed guidelines for what should grow within city limits, but doesn't have the weight of law.

As the tree commission prepares for a November meeting to debate the myriad proposals, there's at least one thing feuding homeowners can agree on: In this town, whether or not a tree falls, everybody's gonna hear it.

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